Have you ever had the thing where you're so absorbed in reading a book that you try to keep reading it while walking around on the street, only to come close to being hit by a bus? I had a bit of that with the new young-adult fantasy novel Half Bad by Sally Green.
Top image of London by Tom Soper Photography
What is it that makes Half Bad so crack-like? It's probably something about the mistreated and abused main character, Nathan, who's a nearly perfect underdog caught between two untenable options. His storyline conjures a lot of emotion, without relying on cheap tricks or shock tactics. And the world-building, which is deceptively simple but conceals a lot of interesting quirks.
To be honest, a lot of young-adult novels have left me underwhelmed lately — there have been a lot of contrived premises, unconvincing romances, plot hammers and by-the-numbers storytelling. I have been trying to take a break from reading YAs for a bit, but Half Bad was the first I've read in a while that felt at least moderately original and genuinely intense.
So in Half Bad, there are two kinds of witches, White and Black. White witches are theoretically good, but at least in this book a lot of them are total horrible jerkfaces. But they try to live in harmony with ordinary people, or fains. Black witches, meanwhile, are totally evil and killing seems to be a way of life for them, plus they have zero interest in living in harmony with anyone. They're sort of like the light and dark fae from Lost Girl.
Nathan, the main character, is the son of a Black father and a White mother — and his dad, Marcus, is one of the greatest villains in history. (His mom died when he was a baby.)
Nathan is being raised by his mom's family, and the Council of White Witches keeps a careful eye on him to see if he's going to turn out as evil as his dad, who's killed dozens of witches, both White and Black. Soon enough, the Council takes Nathan away from his family, and sends him off to the middle of nowhere, to be caged and abused and trained for something sinister. And Nathan realizes pretty quickly that everybody wants him to kill his father, whom he's never even met.
The thing Half Bad does pretty well is show how Nathan is drawn towards the darkness, both because of some of his dad's power stirring within him and because the forces of light keep caging and beating him like a dog. You can't help sympathizing with Nathan because he's being treated unfairly and he hasn't done anything wrong — but Green never makes it a simplistic picture of a misunderstood boy who's all sweetness and light.
And even as we hear more and more about the terrible things Marcus has done, and all the people's betrayed and the hearts he's devoured (because eating other witches hearts is how he steals their powers) Nathan still keeps the hope that his father loves him and cares about him and will come get him someday.
After a while, you want to shake Nathan by the shirt collar and tell him to stop dreaming about a father who is clearly an awful person — but it's also super-believable, because of course a boy who's surrounded by people telling him he's evil — except for a few members of his mom's family and a few others — would pine after an imaginary version of his father. There's something kind of irresistible about the torment of sympathizing with a character who's so wrong-headed, and Green pretty much nails this.
Nathan also has a decent amount of interiority — he tries to teach himself to dissociate from suffering, by thinking about the "holding a burning match" scene from Lawrence of Arabia, and then he moves on to trying to enjoy it, with mixed results. His love for a White witch named Annalise, one of the few people who showed him kindness, is understated and believable. You feel his yearning to belong, but also his confusion about who he really is.
And the worldbuilding is pretty nifty as well — the fact that this is a world where nobody is "the good guys" is brought home pretty neatly. The rules of magic start off pretty simple — on a witch's 17th birthday, he or she must receive three gifts and drink a close family member's blood, in order to come into his or her powers. And every witch has a single "gift," which can be anything from potion-making to shape-shifting. The mythos gets a bit more complicated later on, as we learn more about the shady corners of the world and some neat plot devices are introduced, including "cuts" in space and a magic knife that has a powerful effect on people who wield it.
Another reason Half Bad is so addictive: Green's use of suspense is really strong. The Council of White Witches is a bunch of evil bullies, but they're mostly very competent and their sadism is matched by their ability to keep people under their thumb. Nathan, meanwhile, is pretty smart and resourceful — but he never suddenly becomes brilliant or a badass, and he's constantly in danger. There are a lot of moments where Nathan chooses to trust someone, and you're left shouting, "No! You idiot!" at the book — and sometimes, Nathan turns out to be right.
That said, there are a few major problems with the book — for one thing, after keeping you on the edge of your seat (or in the path of an oncoming bus) for most of the book, it has a somewhat muted ending. I didn't find the ending anti-climactic, so much as low-key. And when I re-read the ending, I found it growing on me.
Also, for some reason, Green chooses to write a long section in the second person present at the start of the book — as if you, the reader, are Nathan. I nearly quit reading there, and was glad I didn't give up on it. Later on, the book jumps into first-person present for reasons that seem unclear as well.
But all in all, Half Bad is a pretty thrilling ride, and the first teen fantasy I've read in a long time that seemed to torture its main character for real story reasons — and it gets to the heart of a common experience that a lot of us have had, where everybody expects the worst of you because of things that aren't your fault at all. That's such an irresistible form of torture, it's hard not to become enthralled.